The Pope, Congress and a presidential campaign

With all the crazy obsession about Donald Trump, it is hard to think of something to top that media frenzy. Enter Pope Francis, stage left.

CNN had a new poll out Sunday that showed Trump fading a bit but we are not done with all that stuff just yet. What that poll shows, as I noted in last week’s post, is that the outsider/right-wing dominates the Republican Party. The poll numbers of Trump, Fiorina, Carson and Cruz combined total 60 percent Republican support. Add in Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee’s numbers and you have 69 percent. The “establishment” side of the candidate field (Bush, Rubio, Christie, Kasich) is right near the 20 percent or so that those candidates showed in last week’s Fox News numbers. Scott Walker leaves the race as hardly a blimp on the radar screen. His former opponents are going after his donors more than his voters.

So now this gets real because there are some of things that need to happen soon. Republican presidential politics will intertwine with certain things that the Republican dominated House and Senate need to do in the near future, like:

  • Pass the 2016 federal budget by September 30th, or at least pass by that date the thing that Congress does these days, a continuing resolution (CR). A CR is basically a kick-the-can activity providing that the federal government will in effect operate under a series of short (who knows, one week, one month, three month?) budgets.
  • If Congress cannot get a CR done by September 30 the government shuts down.
  • There are some pesky problems like how high will the defense budget go, how much money domestic programs will receive.
  • By November Congress will also need to approve an increase in the federal government debt limit, because if they don’t, the government will shut down.
  • Not at quite the same level of problem, but Congress needs to do something about highway funding this fall. Not doing so will shut down highway projects.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that the government will not shut down over any issue. House Speaker John Boehner seems to want the same objective, but the split in his caucus among conservatives/what passes for moderates/far right-wing members makes it difficult for Boehner to resolve even the simplest of issues. These issues are not simple.

Adding to the difficulties, Republican candidates for president are drifting strongly to the right. Having four senators in the sweepstakes makes it even more difficult. And when your leading presidential candidate doesn’t worry about what, how, when or why he says something, things tend to get out of control.

So here is where the Pope comes in. Pope Francis arrives today in Washington for a six day visit to the United States, with various events in Washington, New York City and Philadelphia. On Thursday Francis is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress at the invitation of Speaker Boehner.

The problem is that the majority of Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress have some major disagreements with the positions the Pope has taken about climate change, income inequality, immigration and other social issues, which happen to be some of the major issues in Congress and in the presidential campaign.

This is not to say that Democratic candidates for president as well as the party’s members of the House and Senate do not also have issues to contend with concerning the Pope and the Catholic Church’s stand on some matters. Most of that centers on the issues of abortion and contraception. Those subjects have been part of the serious political discussions in the United States for more than forty years, so Democratic candidates and officeholders alike have had plenty of time to determine their personal positions on these issues, and they have already developed their own talking points on the subject.

How this all plays out over the next several days will be interesting. A lot of depends on how aggressive Pope Francis chooses to be about articulating his positions. But no matter what he says, stand by for a non-stop flurry of reactions and commentaries about the politics of Francis’ statements.

When the Pope’s visit is complete and he returns to Rome Congress will still be left with all those problems that are listed above. There are only eight days left in September for the House and Senate to resolve the budget dilemma.

There has been some concerns raised about decorum during the Pope’s address to Congress, and the Speaker’s office has been working to suggest how to behave. Remember we are talking here about people who are at least 25 years old.

One Republican member of the House from Arizona who identifies himself as Catholic plans to boycott the Pope’s address because he disagrees with the Pope’s position on climate change. At least he won’t be pulling a Joe Wilson. Wilson is the South Carolina congressman who in 2009 shouted out “you lie” during one of President Obama’s speeches to Congress.

Donald Trump will set the tone for the Republican response to the Pope’s speech. Will he be respectful, or will he treat Francis like just another Rand Paul? And then the other fourteen Republican candidates, a group that includes six Catholics, will be forced to react to both Trump and the Pope. Several of them have already indicated their disapproval of various statements that the Pope has made about political issues. That 1960 speech by John F. Kennedy to the Houston ministers about the separation of church and state will get trotted out for another look.

The non-stop news cycles and the internet have created this craziness that passes for politics now. But in the words of a wise man, “who am I to judge?”